Training wastage: what can be done about it?

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I am fascinated how, from time to time, senior members of the L&D community will openly acknowledge that much of the training they deliver fails to bring about an organisational business benefit.

KnowledgePool's own analysis indicates that at least 25% of all learning is wasted in this way. Anecdotally, however, other L&D practitioners have admitted that the actual figure of wastage is much higher, maybe 60%.

The occasions when most organisations investigate enough to quantify the business benefit of training are few and far between. But with £39 billion spent each year on training in England, even a gut feeling about a problem of this magnitude means it's worth thinking about.

My observation is that the way that organisations commission training encourages more training, not less. No bad thing of course but there's a flipside. It risks encouraging all training, with no distinction between training that will deliver business benefit and training that won't. I wonder if this is the root of the problem?

The reason I think the training commissioning process encourages more training not less, is that it involves three parties, all of whom have a vested interest in the delivery of training. The typical commissioning process goes like this:

1. A business area has a problem. The manager decides training will fix it, so s/he requests training from HR. They won't be criticised for asking for training and, by doing so, they are seen to be working to solve the problem.

2. HR (business partners or the L&D team) source a suitable training solution from a training delivery organisation. Their role is to find training solutions for the business and the faster the better. Questions like 'what is the expected business benefit?' are unwelcome: they imply the business unit managers don't know; they also slow the process down.

3. A training delivery organisation (internal or external) delivers the training solution to the business area. The inevitable commercial reality is they will want to deliver as much training as they can: to internal trainers it represents job security; to external training companies it represents vital revenue.

All three parties work on an implicit assumption that training is A Good Thing and the more training that gets done, the better things will be. But this is not necessarily the case.

To address this flaw in the commissioning process, two things need to be done:

Firstly, organisations need to introduce a restraining influence into the commissioning process. 'training budgets' tend to be the default restraining influence, but these are blunt instruments. Budgets apply to all training, whether or not it contributes to business benefit. The challenge is to change the commissioning process so that someone is properly incentivised to regulate the process on a business-benefit basis.

Secondly, organisations need to link training activity with expected business benefit. When we work with large organisations to plan future training demand, they can tell us the training courses they want, the number of learners, timing and location. However the most difficult question by far is: what is the expected business benefit?

Here the challenge is to move from the usual generic responses, reflecting behavioural change or business imperative, towards a statement of the expected benefit in commercial terms, or at least why the business needs it.

If we can commission training more clearly on a business benefit basis, there would be much less wasted training. Despite all the rhetoric about aligning HR to business needs, it appears that on a practical level, we still have some distance to go.

Kevin Lovell (pictured) is learning strategy director at KnowledgePool, which helps large organisations to deliver improved business results through learning & development.

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